Old Men and Spicy Pulps

This Saturday, I spent a couple of hours with a bunch of old men looking at pulp fiction. Not the movie Pulp Fiction, but the genre of books that I (half-)wrote about a while back. Yeah, the smutty ones.

But did you know that pulps weren’t always smutty? No siree! From the 1920s to the 1940s, pulps were actually pretty conservative, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that the smutty pulp we all know and love became the norm. Pulp collectors and dealers refer to smutty pulps as the “spicies.”

How do I know this? I learned it at the Fantastic Pulps Show & Sale.

The image on this poster is R.G. Harris‘ cover art from October 1937 issue of Doc Savage. 

I don’t know much about pulps. I don’t claim to know much about pulps. When someone asks me, “Hey, do you read pulps?” I respond with something along the lines of, “No, but I think the covers are pretty.” The other person usually slinks away, thinking I’m superficial and wondering why I’m even bothering to look at the pulps when I don’t read them. But there’s just so much incredible cover art in pulp fiction that it’s hard to pass up a good pulp show or sale.

So there I was, looking at the book displays in the basement of the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library (and sniffling constantly, because of all the dust), when one of the vendors asked me, “Hey, do you read pulps?”

Crap, I thought. I’m going to look like an idiot if I say no, but I’ll look like even more of an idiot if I say yes and he catches me lying the second he asks me who my favourite author is. Lose-lose, but I chose the option where I lost less. “No,” I replied. “But I think the covers are pretty.”

Maybe it was because he couldn’t go anywhere lest his table be left unmanned, but Peter didn’t slink away to judge me. Instead, he launched into a brief history of the pulps, listing his favourite authors and recalling how he got into collecting the books in the first place.

Peter was particularly passionate about author H. Bedford-Jones, “King of the Pulps,” who wrote more than one million words per year. He even deemed him the most prolific pulp writer ever. But have you heard of H. Bedford-Jones? I sure as heck hadn’t, and I told Peter as much. “It’s because he wrote under so many pseudonyms,” Peter explained. Apparently Bedford-Jones had so many pseudonyms that he once wrote almost an entire issue of Blue Book, but under a bunch of different names. This is kind of like when you go to the grocery store and you think you’re choosing between buying Kellogg’s cereal, Kashi bars, or Bear Naked oatmeal, but they’re all actually owned by the same company. It’s about maintaining the illusion of choice.
Peter told me that, at one point, Bedford-Jones had four different typewriters on the go, each for working on a different story. When Bedford-Jones ran out of ideas for one story, he would simply get up, move to another typewriter, and work on another story he ran out of ideas for that one. Then the cycle would repeat. Because he was like a frickin’ Duracell Bunny, Bedford-Jones was one of the few authors who could actually make a comfortable living wage by just writing pulp fiction.
Just as Peter was wrapping up his Ode to Bedford-Jones, an announcement was made that a pulp fiction slideshow presentation was about to begin upstairs. Peter informed me that “you don’t wanna miss that.” I had to walk up four flights of stairs for the presentation, so we quickly said our goodbyes. Right before I turned away, though, Peter added that I just had to Google Virgil Finlay‘s art (some pulp, some not) when I got a chance. I’m glad I followed his advice – here’s a sample of some Finlay:


Instead of walking up the four flights of stairs, I took the elevator. I was just not feeling the stairs that day.

As I reached the presentation room, I flopped into a chair and waited for the presentation to start. Realizing that I should be ready to take notes (yes, I’m that person), I pulled out a pen and a bunch of old receipts to write on.

Ian from Giasol Collectables, “the finest in pulp magazine reprints,” gave an informative and enjoyable 45-minute slideshow presentation, in which he spoke about some of the most notable pulp books and their covers. Often, he mentioned, pulp covers would have little – or even nothing at all – to do with the stories inside the books. Other times, two books would have similar enough stories that the same cover art could be used for both, with only minor changes. To illustrate this, Ian showed us two of Dime Mystery Magazine‘s covers – one from May 1940, and another from November 1941. The covers had the exact same foreground image, but the first background image had been changed from mermaids in tubes to a poison gas silo and an angry lady. I would love to post the images here, but I can’t find them both online. (This is why we need more digitization, people!)

That was basically what the presentation was all about, so I won’t bore you with any more details. But, rest assured, it was a good presentation. The 45 minutes flew by.

In short, on Saturday I learned a lot about pulps.

Thanks to a bunch of old men.

Collators and Colloquia

As classes (and my undergraduate degree!) finish up, I’ve been struggling to find time to research for, and write, my blog posts. To make the whole time thing even worse, I’ve spent a lot of this week doing things that aren’t even course-related, but are so in line with my research interests that I couldn’t turn them down.
So, instead of writing an educational post, I thought I’d just write about the exciting book history-related things I’ve done in the past few days.

First, Randall McLeod gave me a personal demonstration of his Portable Collator. Who is Randall McLeod, you ask? What is a collator?

You can read about Randall McLeod’s achievements here. As for the collator:

The McLeod Portable Collator [is] a stereoscopic device for comparing texts as images. A dozen and a half models have been placed with private scholars and in research institutions on three continents (including the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and London; the National Library of Wales; Università di Udine; New York Public Library, Pierpont Morgan Library, etc.).
Don’t you just love copying and pasting?

Put in normal-people terms: The collator lets you look at two seemingly-identical texts or images at the same time through a series of special silver-lined mirrors. The machine tricks your brain into combining the two texts/images, so that any differences between them will appear to you in 3D. Sounds awesome, right? It is. What’s also really cool is that you can trick your brain into doing this without the help of a collator – you just need to cross your eyes, which ultimately tricks you brain into thinking that depth is involved, even though it’s not. (Did that make sense? I don’t think that made sense.)

Randall McLeod, using the Randall McLeod Portable Collator.

Now, let’s get one thing straight: McLeod did not invent the collator. The first modern collator was made by a guy named Charlton Hinman, but it was a bulky and electric-powered beast that could too-easily damage the books under inspection. McLeod’s collator requires no electricity. It’s fully adjustable, weighs only about 30 pounds, and can be folded up nicely to about the size of a briefcase. It is, in short, quite an improvement on Hinman’s invention. Unfortunately, Randy mentioned to me that he no longer builds his collators. Never fear, though! He quickly added that people can still buy collators from his competitor, Carter Hailey (who has named his product the “Hailey’s Comet” – I like this guy already). Be warned: they’re expensive. Those mirrors don’t come cheap.

I’m going to stop talking about the collator for now, since I eventually want to do a more detailed post on the field of “un-editing.” On to the second exciting book history-related thing I did this week!

One of my instructors co-hosted the annual Book History and Print Culture Graduate Student Colloquium (sponsored by the Toronto Centre for the Book) this weekend, and invited all of her students to attend. Of course, I ended up being the only undergraduate there, but my instructor helped me meet enough people to make it not-so-awkward.

I couldn’t stay for the whole Colloquium, but I managed to catch two amazing panels that made me wish I could cancel my plans and stay until the end of the day. The first panel featured Odourless Press‘ Bardia Sinaee (who looked like a shorter, thinner, less-bearded Kahl Drogo), The Porcupine’s Quill‘s George Walker (who was wearing a fabulous hat and an even more fabulous bow tie), and Coach House BooksStan Bevington. I’ll admit that before the panel I had no idea who Bardia or George were – I was there for my boy, Stan, whom I’ve admired for so long but have never had the opportunity to see speak.

Bardia and George, though, ended up dominating the conversation. I didn’t care about these guys before the panel, but I sure as heck cared about them as soon as they started talking. They made me forget that I had come just for Stan. Yes, I wish that Stan had spoken more, but I didn’t mind so much once I realized that Bardia and George actually had so many interesting things to say.

My favourite part of the panel’s discussion was towards the end, when the three men were talking about preserving the books they make. Stan mentioned that Coach House was so popular when it started because it was – and still is – one of the few publishing houses in Toronto that produces physically both high-quality and aesthetically-pleasing books. To that, George pointed out that, in an environmentally-friendly world, we purposefully make things (books included) that will return to the earth. When our books begin to disintegrate, however, we “no longer have the evidence.” Then Bardia chimed in, with an opinion that is rarely voiced in the book history world. “I think there’s a poetic justice in disintegration,” he said. “It’s a good thing.” Bardia admitted to printing his chapbooks on acidic paper. He noted that his books are “part of the ephemeral culture that’s right now,” and that he didn’t make them to last.

Good on you, Bardia Sinaee. In case you didn’t notice, you made the entire room of book history scholars go completely silent for a good couple of seconds. That’s hard to do. Scholars tend to never shut up.

The second panel that I attended featured four graduate/post-graduate students, who presented their theses. I won’t go into great detail on this one, since I feel like they should have the honour of telling you about their findings and thoughts themselves. All of the presentations, though, were inspiring. Francesca Facchi spoke about the significance of the book cover colours of Italian crime/mystery novels (particularly Il Giallo Mondadori), Christopher Laprade spoke about the history of the University of Toronto bookstore, Jordan Patterson spoke about the significance of the various covers of William S. Burroughs’ Junk(ie/y) in light of the idea of paratext, and Matthew Schneider spoke about bibliographical traces in the development of digital texts (read: games) written in assembly language.

It was, all in all, a good day. I wish I could have stayed longer to watch the final panel and the keynote speaker, but the Print Room beckoned.

And, now, coursework beckons. This post has ended up being longer than most of my educational posts. Go figure.